“I – I need help.”
The story of a boy and his robot is one of the common structures within science fiction. Kind of like the “boy and his dog” trope (wherein sometimes even the dog is a robot), we often see it as an investigation on how far that companion robot will go to in order to be human, protect their flesh and blood companion, and in many cases sacrifice themselves in a situation where they prove their real emotion/worth. Descender – Volume 1: Tin Stars from Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen, and Steve Wands takes a different approach, giving us the robot without his boy, the search for his human, and a technological mystery that is bringing the universe to its doom.
Descender (and its follow-up sequel series Ascender) is kind of a slow burn serial. Although it does arrange itself into a series of arcs, for the most part the series is one long narrative that is most satisfying through reading the entire thing. That means cliffhangers and unanswered questions at the ends of many of the collections, but I feel like this propels readers forward as they delve deeper into the story. Like old school comics and sci-fi serials that played in theatres or on the radio. Which I think is part of the charm of the book. It embraces old storytelling techniques that elevate the overall feel and momentum of the story.
The first volume introduces us to the overall situation, where humanity (and the other races) has been brutally attacked and diminished by massive artificial lifeforms, and everyone is looking for answers, and perhaps revenge. It sets up the beginnings of our core cast of characters with the scientist responsible for introducing robots before the attack, a pair of government agents trying to uncover the truth, and the little boy companion robot, Tim-21, whose codex is believed to give answers as to what the giant robots are and what they want. (Tim-21 even has his own robot dog companion, which I think is a wonderful extension of that “boy and his dog” format). All with competing forces, like an antagonistic neighboring empire and scrappers just out for money, to add more conflict and intrigue into the mystery.
This world is richly developed by Dustin Nguyen’s artwork. The style that he’s developed over the past few years is endlessly fascinating. The base of his linework, from as far back I think as Wildcats, reminded me a bit of artists like Leinil Francis Yu. Detail and refinement, but he changed his approach around the time of Detective Comics and really branched out with Descender and beyond. The attention to detail is still there, but he’s simplified his lines, giving us a nice frame to characters and settings, and then applied what look like watercolors for depth and shadow. It gives everything more of a moody, impressionistic feel that’s almost dreamlike. Not something that you’d normally think would fit with science fiction, but it helps everything feel unique.
Steve Wands also does incredible work here making the overall visual presentation of the design look special. The robots naturally each have their own unique word balloons and text styles, but there’s also a baseline style for ordinary human speech that’s slightly larger than you’d expect from other comics, a slight tilt, and non-standard letters that seem to go below the descender (like the point of an “N”). It’s a little thing, emphasizing that this is a different world.
Descender – Volume 1: Tin Stars by Lemire, Nguyen, and Wands kicks off a science-fiction adventure that looks into the secret origins of advanced technological life, but does so through the heart of a little robot looking for his human. It takes ages old sci-fi tropes and approaches and gives them a fresh and beautiful perspective.
Descender – Volume 1: Tin Stars
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Dustin Nguyen
Letterer: Steve Wands
Publisher: Image Comics
One young robot’s struggle to stay alive in a universe where all androids have been outlawed and bounty hunters lurk on every planet.
A rip-roaring and heart-felt cosmic odyssey that pits humanity against machine, and world against world, to create a sprawling space opera from the creators of Trillium, Sweet Tooth, and Little Gotham.
Release Date: September 9, 2015
Read last week’s entry in the Classic Comic Compendium!